Words, wise or otherwise, about wine

Pol Roger Champagne

Reading Quaffable’s tour of France that has begun in the Champagne region has given me the inspiration to recount a fascinating and insightful trip to Pol Roger last year.

Wine buffs will of course know that this celebrated Champagne house has had a historic connection to Sir Winston Churchill dating back to 1908. This was the year that Winston Churchill, then in the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, became a customer for the first time, beginning a lifelong association with the brand. The Royal Warrant was awarded to Pol Roger in 1911 and Pol Roger was served at the Guildhall luncheon held on George V’s Coronation Day, 30th June.

Churchill’s relationship with Pol Roger deepened after 1945, at a lunch given by the British ambassador to France following the liberation of Paris. This was when Churchill met the charming and captivating Odette Pol-Roger and began a friendship, indulged by his wife Clementine, which lasted until Sir Winston’s death in 1965. Each year on his birthday, Odette would send him a case of vintage champagne, and, in honour of their friendship, Churchill named one of his favourite racehorses after her.

So close was his relationship with the family that, on Churchill’s death, Pol Roger put black bordered labels on the bottles destined for the UK.  In 1975, Pol Roger celebrated the long association by naming their prestige cuvée after him, making it in the robust, mature style that he liked so much.

In the middle of studying for my Sparkling Wine exam during my WSET diploma and spying a few days gap in my flying roster, I took the opportunity to take my wife to Champagne for a couple of days to try and put some theory in to practice. It was also a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt, to try and show my wife that studying wine does have its fringe benefits!

Winston Churchill Room at Pol Roger

Thus it was that I found myself contemplating this history in the Sir Winston Churchill room at the ‘most drinkable address in the world’ –  44 champagne Avenue, Epernay – the home of Pol Roger  where we were met by our charming, friendly and knowledgeable host, Sylviane Lemaire, who spent the next few hours patiently guiding us around the Pol Roger facilities, underground cellars and finally to the tasting room.

Champagne is of course a blended wine, in every sense of the word. It is blended from different grape varieties, from many different vineyards and across vintages. The intention being to create a consistent product that will taste the same across millions of bottles and that also maintains the house style year after year. It is only Vintage Champagne that will display different characteristics but even this will be a blended wine to a large extent.

The base wines are fermented in the normal way and they will then be transferred to enormous tanks for this blending process, or assemblage, to take place. The selection of wines is carried out by family members and the winemaker, Dominique Petit. Only once the blending has been carried out to their satisfaction will the wines be allowed to be bottled and proceed to the magical second fermentation that produces the unique product that turns unpalatable, acidic still wines in to a product that has launched a thousand parties and the odd ship or 2.

Fermentation Tanks

Fermentation Tanks

Much larger assemblage (blending) tank

Much larger assemblage (blending) tank

The wine is now transferred to the bottle that it will eventually be sold in, a special mix of sugar and yeast added and then sent down to join the other 7.5 million bottles in the 7km of cellars below the streets of Epernay to undergo the prise de mousse. It is this stage that adds the precious bubbles, a by-product of the added yeast inducing a second fermentation. The CO­2 given off cannot escape and is forced to dissolve in to the wine, only making an appearance again when the cork is finally popped at your party.

Bottles undergoing second fermentation and lees ageing

Bottles undergoing second fermentation and lees ageing

Non Vintage Champagne has to remain on the lees, the sediment that is formed during the prise de mousse, for a minimum of 18 months and Vintage Champagne for 3 years. It is the lees, and its decomposition in a process known as autolysis, that gives Champagne its distinct bread, biscuit and brioche aromas. These minimum ageing periods are usually exceeded, significantly so, for the quality conscious houses. For example, the Pol Roger average is 5 years.

7km of underground cellars

7km of underground cellars and 7.5 million bottles

We all know that our Champagne is sparkling bright, clear and free from sediment which means that the sediment has to be removed somehow. The traditional way was to do this by hand in a process known as remuage or riddling. The bottles are placed in racks called pupitres and turned a fraction by hand every day over a period of a few weeks. A skilled remuer will turn thousands of bottles a day and gradually tilt the bottle so that it is eventually upright and all the sediment is collected in the neck of the bottle.

Remuage

Remuage

 

Loaded pupitres

Loaded pupitres

Pol Roger is one of the few Champagne houses to still complete this process by hand for all its Champagnes. Most other producers use a machine known as a gyropalette which can be programmed to mimic the action of manual remuage but can complete the process in just 3 days rather than 6 weeks or more.

Gyropallette

Gyropallette

Lees clearly visible in neck of bottle

Lees clearly visible in neck of bottle

The Champagne is now ready for removal of this sediment during disgorgement. Whilst keeping the bottles inverted, they are transferred to a super cooled glycol bath which freezes the sediment into a plug of ice that is forced out under pressure when the cap is removed. The clean wine is topped up with another special mix, but this time comprising just wine and sugar. This dosage, will determine the final style of wine by varying the amount of sugar added. Finally the wine will be rested for about 6 months in order to allow the dosage to ‘marry’ in to the wine before release to the market.

Of course no visit to a venerable Champagne house would be complete without a tasting and we were duly invited to taste a few bottles including the zero dosage Pol Roger Pure and Sir Winston Churchill cuvee. It is difficult to imagine two more different Champagnes. One is bone dry, austere with a hard edge and has a masochistic razor like quality while the other is velvet like, complex and powerful. Like the man it is named after, it commands respect by its presence, inspires confidence that it will age magnificently, and that its memory will remain long after the final sip has been swallowed.  This is a Champagne that should be at the top of every Englishman’s must try list and I am deeply indebted to Pol Roger and Sylviane for their time, hospitality and the opportunity to taste their whole line up of delicious Champagnes.

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